Empowering Generations

Soaring As Eagles creates advancement opportunities for kids and families

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n the twelve years since envisioning her mission, VENESSA KIM CEASAR has come to be “mother, nana, auntie, and big sister” – as she puts it – to many Wilmington residents.

The nonprofit she subsequently launched as a way to help pregnant teens, Soaring as Eagles, has expanded into a multi-generational effort focused on the families of students in Title I schools in New Hanover County.

Title I is a section of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that commits financial assistance to public schools with high numbers or percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet state academic standards.

The concept and even the name for Soaring as Eagles came as a “download” from God, Ceasar says, while she was back in her native Wilmington in 2009 visiting her mother. But Ceasar’s realization of her life purpose struck her much earlier.

“I was 13 years old and had just had a baby. I remember where I was, standing in that bedroom (at home.) I said, ‘Lord, I don’t want to be rich, but I really want to help people,’” she recalls.

She also knew that despite her own situation and her unhappiness at her parents’ recent separation, she would overcome her difficulties, attend college, and become a professional.

Ceasar followed that path, graduating from Hoggard High School and earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She also married and had a second child. Widowed in less than three years, she left her job at the local hospital returned to UNCW to take “all those hard courses” in psychology and statistics that would equip her for a career in social services and counseling and picked up her second bachelor’s degree.

Her career took her to Atlanta, where she remarried, had a third child, and remained for 21 years.

When young parents share their dreams with Ceasar, she can feed those dreams because of her own experience. When they complain that they can’t change their circumstances, she shares her own story and insists they can follow her example and get an education which, she says, “changes everything.”

“Our goal is to bring hope to generations,” Ceasar says of her organization.

“In 2019 we were doing a ‘Lunch and Learn’ series for parents, which became ‘Dine and Discover.’ We partnered with Coastal Horizons. These turned into evening sessions with (activities) for children: Girl Scouts, STEM. A therapist came to talk with them about all kinds of subjects while the parents were doing goal setting and money management. We now also partner with Smart Start to work with families on job readiness, financial literacy, and parenting.”

Collaborations like these have helped Soaring as Eagles take flight since it received its nonprofit status in 2013. Ceasar’s initial vision of helping teen mothers expanded when she realized “Age is just a number. People of all ages need help because there is a lot of hopelessness.”

Her work with teenaged parents broadened into work with at-risk youth, introducing them to “all the things these young people need to be successful in life.” Then she opened the program to parents in their 20s. Service as a substitute teacher in the New Hanover County Schools made her realize that students in low-achieving schools “could use all these things the Lord had given me.”

That epiphany led to Soaring as Eagles’ launch at Rachel Freeman School of Engineering Saturday Academy, a January-to-May tutoring program focused on math and reading to prepare students in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades for the end-of-grade tests. The program has since expanded to Snipes and Forest Hills elementary schools.

This July, Soaring as Eagles will introduce its Pre-K Jumpstart program to prepare students who need a little boost before they begin kindergarten. There will be complimentary sessions for their parents as well. Ceasar plans to hold the program in June and July of 2022.

Funding for Soaring as Eagles comes primarily from grants, and Ceasar, who is always scouting new sources of support, is pleased that her organization will receive money from New Hanover County for the first time this year. And the organization has found a home (as well as several partners) at The Harrelson Center in downtown Wilmington.

“I love collaboration,” she says. “I even refer my clients to therapists and to other nonprofits in the Harrelson Center. I don’t have all the answers; I never will have all the answers, but I will put you in front of somebody who does.”

Ceasar is anticipating more volunteers, more grants, more donations.

“The need has increased because of COVID. We’d like to do our Saturday Academy in the fall because the kids are so far behind,” she says. “If the foundation of education is not there, it’s less likely the kids will be successful.”

Ceasar credits God for inspiring her work with Soaring as Eagles. She also applauds the organization’s seven-person board: “talented, gifted; I just love them” and its volunteers for making her vision a reality.

“I love what I do. We have mothers who come in and talk about their goals, their Smart Personal Development Plan. It’s so encouraging to see moms that were depressed now enrolled in school,” she says.

To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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Categories: Women to Watch